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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 November 2011
Sea Wolves is a look at British submarines in WWII and the days before, noting that the experience of the British was vastly different to that of the German U-Boats, or even the Americans engaged in the Pacific war. For the Germans, the submarine war was largely a thing of the deep Atlantic, harassing convoys and being resupplied at sea. For the Brits, it was a mixture of home defence and actions in the Meditterranean, largely against Italian merchant shipping, with a little Far East action in the Indian Ocean towards the war's end. Clayton points this out towards the end of the book, and notes that while submarine service was dangerous for Brits - on a par with flying bombers over the Reich every night - it was deadly for the Germans.

The first 100 pages of this taut 400 page book is focused on the pre-war sub stations and men. The Far East appears exotic and entrancing in the 1930's, while with hindsight we can see the pall hanging over China and Hong Kong admidst the bright lights and painted ladies. Then the war begins, and the focus is on Europe and specifically the Norwegian campaign, which was stupid and bloody on both sides, at least for the navies involved. There is a fair bit about this - and I had forgotten that Norway was still going on even after Dunkirk - and it is all interesting.

The heart of the book is about the campaign in the Med, based out of Malta, where the British were commerce raiders, doing to the Afrika Korp was the Kriegsmarine was trying to do to Britain: cut off its supplies. There is also the actions against the Italian fleet, as well as the various "special forces" type of action the subs were often sent out to do.

The book then ends with smaller sections on the minisubs attacks on the Tirpitz, and on the Indian Ocean sub force based out of Trincomalee and Perth. This is an often-forgotten side of the "Pacific" war, and its noteworthy that the British subs were hot and humid in the tropics, having been largely designed for the cold of the North Sea. There is a final summing up of the "was it worth it" kind, with some pretty good analysis: it deftly makes the point that submarines were not designed as special forces insertion vehicles, but they were the least worst option for the job, so they got it, even at the cost of other operational benefits.

All up, this is well written and easy to read, romping along without ever shying away from showing the horrible things that happen in wartime. Excellent work, if you like that sort of thing.
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on 18 July 2011
Sea Wolves is an outstanding contribution to our knowledge of British submarine operations in the Second World War. Its splendid script weaves the operations, the sailors, the enemy, the sea and the Nation into a lively and comprehensive narrative that I could not put down. It brilliantly combines people, plans, politics, politicians and platforms but it is the people that are at its centre and the core is focused upon the submariners from Admiral to Able Seaman. It covers the characters, known and unknown, their courage, their competence (or otherwise)their capabilities, their comradeship and their capacities: for fighting (the enemy and each other!) women, lust, sport, money, travel, food and alcohol. Tim Clayton brings them to us: their lives, their loves and their losses; one part stiff upper lip, the other crippling reality of combat and death.

The pace is hectic and I am impressed by the manner, in which the author keeps it going. He has packed a lot into nearly 400 pages and the result is excellent. There is journalistic licence and some deductions, analysis and speculation are presented as facts but one can forgive this travesty. He covers the planning, the operational and the technical but I was especially moved by the women in the story; the wives, the fiancees, the girfriends. They too had a tough war; often never knowing what had become of their men. Their courage is understated but real.

The drinking, the breakdowns, the sex, the swearing, the brutality, the doubts, the destruction and the failures are all carefully portrayed, all experiences of men in the front-line. The photographs are illuminating too: change the uniform (or rather lack of them) and wind forward to 2011 and it could be Afghanistan rather than the ocean in 1941. If you are interested in men at war, this book is highly recommended. Tim Clayton has done British Submariners of the Second World War a great service; they deserve to be remembered.
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on 25 July 2011
This is the first book that I have read covering the men and operations of the British submarine force in the Second World War. I have read heaps of books on German U-boats, US Pacific submarines, and Japanese submarine operations in the Pacific but never anything on the British. This book offers a very good account of the men, officers and ratings, and their submarines during operations in European waters, the Mediterranean and the Pacific.

The British submarines tended to operate close to shore in mined and heavily patrolled waters, and in parts of the Mediterranean, in very shallow and clear waters that accounted for the high losses suffered in that theatre. Whilst operating off Norway in the early stages of the war the British crews had to work with long daylight hours, which caused all sorts of problems not experienced by other navies' submarines during WW2. This is best expressed in the following passage from the book:

"Somehow the horror of that grim summer which claimed half our flotilla lies almost forgotten - the translucent seas, with never a ripple to hide us from our foes above; the cloudless skies, that seldom darkened in those northern latitudes to give us the blessed shield of invisibility for which we craved to charge our batteries; the everlasting anxiety as to when we could venture up to change the foul air in the boat; men panting like dogs in the carbon-dioxide laden stench we breathed; the plaintively repeated signals from our base asking for one or other of our flotilla mates to report their position - the sign that yet another boats was overdue; all these things are but unreal memories." - (Sub-lieutenant Ben Bryant who survived the war and retired as a rear-admiral in 1957).

Under these conditions the submariners suffered devastating casualties, comparable with RAF Bomber Command. This book offers the reader a vivid and insightful story of the men who served in British submarines during the Second World War. It is well worth the read as the book places you with these men as they face the terror of being depth-charged and the horror of trying to escape from a sunken submarine filled with the bodies of their comrades.
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on 16 October 2014
I read this book as a part of my self-education programe regarding WW2. I'm well acquainted with the war in the air and know a fair bit about the land war, but of naval warfare I know scarcely anything and, having long been rather fascinated by submarines, decided on the strength of other amazon reviews to have a go at this. And what a read it is. Once I got into it I could hardly put it down.

I knew that it was dicey to serve in subs, but had no idea of quite how bad it was, or why. Many British subs were scarcely seaworthy, having been treated very much as the unwanted, cinderella part of the service by the cretins at the admiralty who remained fixated on the obsolete battleships of a bygone era, rather like army commanders who insisted on keeping cavalry when tanks were clearly taking over the battlefield. They suffered from almost continuous mechanical breakdowns, many brought on by being depth-charged, of course, but even these being more frequent than they might have been because of the poor standards of quality-control and maintenance inflicted upon them from the moment they started being built. They suffered a horrendous casualty rate particularly in the Mediterranean, where the clear waters made them easy targets for German and Italian sub-hunters (everybody pokes fun at the Italians, but they were a very efficient and deadly foe in the submarine war). Added to this was the fact that many British subs were destroyed by "friendly fire", which (understandably but still very distressingly) usually resulted from the assumption that any sub must be a U-boat, particularly in the Atlantic. And some of that "friendly fire" came from their own torpedoes - one in four of them were likely to miss their targets, circle round and hit the subs that fired them, again owing to the parsimony of the admiralty which wouldn't pay for enough modern and reliable torpedoes. Many subs had inefficient or obsolete radios (they came bottom of the pecking order after the RAF and surface vessels), so that they sometimes sank each other due to the appalling deficiencies in their communications apparatus. On one terrible occasion, this deficiency led to one of them inadvertently sinking an Italian hospital ship, since the sub in question couldn't receive the signals that would have saved them from making such an awful mistake. The Italians found them, sunk them, and machine-gunned the survivors.
Not just radios suffered. Many subs had guns that frequently pre-dated the Great War (one sub had a gun stamped "VR" on the breech). All because of the stupidity, parsimony and general incompetence of the wicked, blasted Admiralty.
The figures speak for themselves. 42 percent of subs operating in the Med were lost. Of 57 subs operational when war broke out, only 2 were left at the end, 34 having been sunk and the rest retired from action. Of a total of over 9000 men who served during the war in subs, over 3000 were killed, a death rate comparable to that of bomber command. In the Royal Navy as a whole, the casualty rate was 7.6 percent; for the submarine service it was 38 percent. Go figure.

Some reviewers have critiscised this book because, apparently, it recycles material published elsewhere. However, for someone like me, unacquainted with the subject, it was fine. Others have decried its episodic, rather piecemeal structure, but again this didn't bother me - based as it is upon memoirs I wouldn't have expected (or wanted) anything else.

As I write this, I'm almost shaking with rage at the bovine stupidity of an admiralty that made an already hazardous job worse than it need have been and condemned hundreds of brave men to a terrible death. I'll finish with a brief description from a part of the book, describing the aftermath of a successful Italian attack on a British sub in the med:

"in a flurry of bubbles... P38 came to the surface to be met by randomly thrown depth charges and a hail of machine gun fire from aeroplanes and escorts... Suddenly it shot to the surface like a dolphin and then, with its screws in the air, plunged down again... A mas of bubbles and oil rose to the surface and among them the excited Italians spotted evidence of their kill: a polished cupboard door, a table top, a bag of flags, a human lung".
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 February 2014
I was very eager to discover this book - but once I finished it, I was partially disappointed.

The saga of British submarines in World War II deserved definitely a better treatment than this book, as it was full of acts of great heroism and also great tragedies. Their crews took them into some of the deadliest places on Earth, like the North Sea which between 1939 and 1945 was literally FILLED with mines and heavily patrolled by swarms of German anti-submarine ships, small U-Boats and dozens of planes. The Mediterranean theatre was even deadlier, with the threat being not only large minefields placed by Germans and Italians around their communication lines, but also excellent Italian destroyers and quite efficient naval aviation. Only the Indian Ocean was a somehow easier place, with the Japanese being much less effective in anti-submarine warfare than their German and Italian allies.

British subs didn't only hunt for enemy ships, but also scouted, laid mines, carried commandos and secret agents to infiltrate "Festung Europa" and also evacuated them, frequently at very great risk... In some occasions even stranger cargoes were carried, like canoes, human torpedoes and once even a dead body destined to be abandoned on a German occupied shore...

No less than 92 British subs were sunk and definitely lost, frequently with all hands: HMS "Cachalot", HMS "Grampus", HMS "Narwhal", HMS "Porpoise", HMS "Oxley", HMS "Odin", HMS "Olympus", HMS "Orpheus", HMS "Oswald", HMS "Pandora", HMS "Parthian", HMS "Perseus", HMS "Phoenix", HMS "Rainbow", HMS "Regent", HMS "Regulus", HMS "Swordfish", HMS "Seahorse", HMS "Starfish", HMS "Shark", HMS "Snapper", HMS "Salmon", HMS "Spearfish", HMS "Sterlet", HMS "Sahib", HMS "Saracen", HMS "Sickle", HMS "Simoom", HMS "Splendid", HMS "Stonehenge", HMS "Stratagem", HMS "Syrtis", HMS "Thames", HMS "Triton", HMS "Thunderbolt" (ex-HMS "Thetis"), HMS "Triumph", HMS "Tarpon", HMS "Thistle", HMS "Tigris", HMS "Triad", HMS "Talisman", HMS "Tetrarch", HMS "Tempest", HMS "Thorn", HMS "Traveller", HMS "Trooper", HMS "Turbulent", HMS "Undine", HMS "Unity", HMS "Umpire", HMS "Unbeaten", HMS "Undaunted", HMS "Union", HMS "Unique", HMS "Upholder", HMS "Urge", HMS "Usk", HMS "Utmost", HMS "Usurper", HMS "Vandal" (ex HMS "Unbridled"), HMS "P311" (lost before name HMS "Tutankhamen" officially attributed), HMS "P615" (ex-Turkish "Uluc Ali Reis"), HMS "P32", HMS "P33", HMS "P36", HMS "P38", HMS "P39", HMS "P48", HMS "P222", HMS "H49", HMS "H31".

Other than the 92 boats mentioned above, the HMS "Untamed" was sunk in 1943, but once salvaged returned to service in 1944, under a new name. Finally, one submarine, HMS "Seal", was captured by Germans in 1940 and served until 1945 in Kriegsmarine as "UB".

Although the price paid was heavy, between 1939 and 1945 British submariners accomplished A LOT especially sinking following enemy warships:

GERMAN: light cruiser "Karlsruhe", small destroyer "Luchs", submarines "U 1", "U 36", "U 51", "U 301", "U 303", "U 308", "U 335", "U 431", "U 486", "U 644", "U 859", "U864", "U 987", "UIT 23", large gunboat "Brummer", frigate "F9", large minesweeper "M381"

ITALIAN: heavy cruiser "Trento", light cruisers "Giovanni Delle Bande Nere", "Armando Diaz", destroyers "Emanuele Pessagno", "Giovanni Da Verazzano", "Libeccio", "Vincenzo Gioberti", "Aviere", "Bombardiere", small destroyers "Palestro", "Climene", "Alcione", "Lince", submarines "Pietro Micca", "Guglielmotti", "Capitano Tarantini", "Ammiraglio Millo", "Ammiraglio Saint Bon", "Remo", "Pier Capponi", "Tricheco", "Jantina", "Medusa", "Salpa", "Diamante", "Acciaio", "Granito", "Porfido", "Velella", large gunboat "Diana", gunboat "Valoroso", minelayer "Durazzo", corvette "Albatros",

JAPANESE: heavy cruiser "Ashigara", light cruiser "Kuma", old destroyer "Nadakaze", submarines "I 34", "I 166", subchaser (kusentei)" N°8", large minesweepers (sokaitei) "N°5", "N°7"

VICHY FRANCE: submarine "Souffleur", large gunboat "Rigault de Genouilly"

Those two lists, which I believe to be quite complete (I was not able to compile a similar list of cargo ships sunk), deserved to be placed in this review, because you will NOT find them in the book.

I must say that when books about submarine warfare are concerned, I tend to adopt as measure of reference for quality the books written by Clair Blair about the US submarines in Pacific War ("Silent Victory") and German U-Boats during World War II ("Hitler's U-Boat war: The Hunters" and "Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunted"). Those large books, which were written as the result of many, many years of research and hard work, combine excellent writing and very interesting and detailed narration with a great lot of hard data about the subject.

In this book, this is NOT the case. At 390 pages of real text, for such a huge topic, it is of moderate size and even in this limited space, author wasted many, many pages on things which are completely beyond the subject, like a general story of development of British subs, their actions in WWI and the debate on submarine warfare in the 20s and 30s. No less than 16 pages are devoted to submarines from China Station in the 20s and 30s!

In fact, we have to wait until the page 90 before really entering the subject, and considering that the last 10 pages are devoted to demobilization, that leaves a great total of 290 pages to cover the WHOLE great adventure of British submarine force between 1939 and 1945, on three oceans... Small wonder therefore, that this book is VERY SUPERFICIAL...

But this is only the beginning of bad news. Quite a lot of this book is devoted to private life of men serving on board of submarines rather than to the combat operations - and that diminishes further the space devoted to the "Extraordinary story of Britain's WW2 submarines", as we learn instead a lot about wives and girlfriends.

In fact, the greatest successes, like the torpedoing of "Leipzig" and "Nurnberg" on 13 December 1939, the destruction of "Neptunia " and "Oceania" on 18 September 1941, the grievous damage inflicted on "Bolzano" and "Muzio Attendolo" on 13 August 1942 and the sinking of "Ashigara" on 8 June 1945 (the largest warship ever sunk by a British sub), are all dispatched in a couple of lines! Even worse, the torpedoing of "Prinz Eugen" on 23 February 1942 by HMS "Trident", which took this priceless powerful cruiser out of war for no less than eleven months during a strategically crucial time (she couldn't even take part in the Battle of Bear Island for that reason) and the crippling of mighty battleship "Vittorio Venetto" by HMS "Urge" on 14 December 1941 are both expedited with one line each! That is a particularly unpleasant treatment especially for the valiant crew of HMS "Urge", because this ship was later lost with all hands...

Only very limited place was also devoted to the general submarine strategy during the war and all the dilemmas and decisions taken by Admiral Horton and other British high commanders and it is a pity. Last but not least, author adopted an infuriating manner to frequently refer to the boats not by their own name but by the name of their captains, which muddles greatly the narration!

For all those reason, this book partly disappointed me and in fact the real sub-title should be rather, "The extraordinary story of Britain's WW2 submarine crews" - that would be more accurate... For my personal taste, it is barely a superficial, hastily written introduction. Clearly, the REAL book about the "Extraordinary Story of Britain's WW2 submarines", one that could rival with Clay Blair's works, remains still to be written.
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VINE VOICEon 30 August 2011
This is a wonderful, riveting account of the lives and exploits of some of the bravest men of WW2 who went to war in what, we would regard today, as almost squalid conditions. A service that was discounted as an irrelevance by many in the Royal Navy and often with inferior, under-resourced and hastily commissioned submarines, with every possibility of being sunk by their over-enthusiastic compatriots as well as the Axis. The array of unappealing demises that lay in wait for these men, each more terrifying than the next, is described in almost clinical detail, but is counterbalanced beautifully with detailed and insightful accounts of the personalities and the character of the bravest of brave men who sought to wage war in this way. Somehow they were able to put to one side the ever-present possibility of a grisly death and managed to perform their duty on many more occasions than official records, I am certain, will be able to demonstrate. Surely the epithet of "Hero" was never more deserved. I wonder which words such men would have for some of our more self-serving politicians and the young looters we saw on the news of last week. In any event this book is a detailed, moving and beautifully written testament to their success, their lives and to their deaths. Excellent - I feel proud and privileged to have read it.
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on 4 September 2011
Its good that any book seeks to highlight the lives and all too often the deaths, of British submariners. I can't help but conclude that the book leans too heavily on previously published autobiographical works by submarine veterans such as Anscombe, Bryant, Mars, King, Young. There is a wealth of untapped material at the Submarine Museum which has never been harnessed. The result is that there is a paucity of eye witness account material (particularly from ratings) on the crucial, costly years 1939/1940 (ie undersea war in home waters). I know of searing accounts from petty officers and ratings who served on the likes of Unity, Undine, Starfish, Sunfish, Sturgeon, H31, Narwhal and Porpoise but sadly this material has been neglected in favour of more easily accessible accounts. This does not devalue the book but it is not as rounded as it could have been.

Nor does the book explore the strategic dilemma and inter-service tensions faced by VA (S) Horton in the autumn of 1941 when he had to find submariners to crew a vastly expanding submarine fleet, seemingly out of thin air.

Nevertheless the book is to be welcomed and it achieves its broad goals - its just that it could have been so much better if Mr Clayton had explored some primary sources.
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on 19 April 2014
The book sets out to provide the story of Britain's WW2 submarines which gives a generally chronological history and insight into what undoubtedly must have been an extraordinary experience for those who volunteered for the boats. It is though in the most part rather dry and whilst imparting knowledge never caught my imagination in the way that other sub accounts have done, so reading turned rather into an academic history lesson.
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on 28 March 2014
There are a number of autobiographies which expand upon the histories brought together here; but not everyone may want to read them all individually and in full - so pace 'Clio', who seems to think that everyone ought to read them all; and somewhat disparaged the author for having brought so many such sources into one precised volume - a not insubstantial volume nonetheless - which I think serves as an excellent over view of the very condsiderable contribution of the Royal Navy's Submarine Service to the Allies victory in WW2, especially in Europe. As an erstwhile though very junior veteran of 'the Trade' during the latter part of that conflict, it rang true to me and I think gave a fair p[icture both of what it was like and the people whose stories were told (just one or two of whom I knew personally). Nor can I agree with the criticism that the lower deck was not given sufficient weight: I thought the senior rates at least had a fair coverage: though inevitably perhaps the majority of written sources were by officers.
Where I would criticise the author - and so withold the final star - is in the relatively superficial coverage of their operations in the Far East; or was this an editor who thought his book was becoming over-long? He is certainly given cause by the determination of our American allies to keep us out, and not only because our European-oriented submarine designs limited their range; Nontheless, for example, the X-craft's cutting of the two Saigon telephone lines - an operation outside the American's capability - meant that all the Japanese signal traffic from that hub had all thereafter to go by W/T - and so be read by the alied code-breakers.
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on 25 February 2015
My late parents had a cousin in the Sub. Service and he only spoke a little of his time on two subs during WW2. I was quite keen to know more so bought this book. Many of the accounts are vivid indeed and has left me with a very clear picture of this second cousin's life on his subs. during the war, and all he had to endure. Not sure I would have been well suited to life aboard as it seemed highly claustrophobic. These men needed nerves of steel. If any others want to know about life on UK's subs. pre-1960's, this is the book to read.
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